What do Apple ( AAPL), Starbucks ( SBUX) and Facebook have in common? They're brands that are the definition of cool. But in a recession, does being hip still sell? You bet. "Cool always sells because the basis of cool is aspirational," says Del Breckenfeld, author of The Cool Factor: Building Your Brand's Image Through Partnership Marketing (Wiley). "People aspire to be like the actors, musicians or celebrities that society deems as cool." Here are eight reasons why it's good to be in vogue and how to do it right: Fabulous differentiator: Find a way to set yourself apart from the competition. You don't necessarily need a ton of cash to do so. Just get yourself noticed by those who shape opinions in your niche. That could be bloggers, teens and tweens. It could be friends you think are cool. LivingSocial has grown to 7 million users in two years by allowing people to review and share with their pals what they think is cool, from books to beer. "No one wants to be picked last in gym class," says CEO and co-founder Tim O'Shaughnessy. "So if you see someone who is perceived by others as being the first picked in gym class, you mold yourself after them. It's human nature." By building this network, LivingSocial has been able to help companies like book publishers find out what people are reading and recommending. And thanks to a relationship with Amazon.com ( AMZN), it can even track sales. It's a state of mind: Cool can mean different things to different audiences. For example, Best Buy's ( BBY) Geek Squad makes it cool to be a geek, says Dr. Scott Testa, professor of marketing at St. Joseph's University who also writes Dr. Scott's Cool Marketing and Business Blog. Mountain Dew's close relationship with extreme sports makes it the brand for teen boys, but Cadillac's coolness is more mature and sophisticated. So consider your audience when determining how cool you want to be.
Reaching out the right way: Today, the cool kids hang out more online than offline. They're on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. They're texting on their iPhones or smart phones. They're reading blogs. So if you want to be part of the in crowd, says O'Shaughnessy, partner with the companies that are cool for your target audience. Be committed: One of the biggest mistakes businesses make is not keeping the message focused. Whatever cool image you want to project, it has to be supported throughout the company, says Breckenfeld. "Dabbling in cool just won't cut it. Just wearing a cool hat doesn't make the wearer cool unless he has the attitude, and eventually the lifestyle, to support it. Today's consumers are way too savvy to get fooled by anything that's not authentic." Price matters: Being hot can go a long way -- but price can be a stumbling block. Knowing your audience means also knowing what they're willing to pay for being on the inside track. Segway stumbled because it was marketed to middle-income people, says David Hearld, founder and CEO of Profit-Tell International, a marketing and advertising company with over 30 locations in North America. "It was a $3,000-$4,000 investment for what was almost a toy. A motorcycle is way more cool and you get it for the same amount of money." Still, don't undercut yourself either. A little pain at the cash register can add to your company's cool factor. "People are still buying Blackberries and their product is priced higher than others," explain Hearld.
Value is essential: Segway's misstep wasn't just price, says Hearld. It's also about giving customers the feeling that they are getting value for the added cost of buying something cool. Wii became an unprecedented hit because it not only appealed to gamers, it also found a following with parents looking for something the entire family could do. "The Wii solves a problem," he adds. "It's family fun. It gives kids hand-eye coordination and keeps them busy." Watch those cultural currents: While everyone from kids to Baby Boomers want to be considered cool, what's held up as cool can change over time. Take the Toyota Prius. "It used to be a nerdy car but it became a cool thing because societal values are shifting," says Brian Till, the Steber Professor of marketing and department chair at St. Louis University. It's so hot that it has spawned a slew of competitors. So keep your hand on the societal pulse or be out of step, warns Till, who is also co-author of The Truth About Creating Brands People Love (FT Press). Do it for the right reason: Don't be cool for the sake of being cool. It has to be organic, a natural part of the business, warns Donna Heckler, brand strategy leader for Monsanto and co-author of The Truth About Creating Brands People Love. Microsoft ( MSFT) blundered when it used Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld as pitchmen. Boy, were those commercials awkward, and, worse, totally uncool. After all, not all businesses are destined to be trendy. And what matters are your customers. "If coolness doesn't resonate with your target audience, then it doesn't matter," says Heckler. "During an economic downturn, you need be focused on your target audience."